First in a three-part series on gossip as communication -
Most of us are taught from an early age not to gossip. It is forbidden by Jewish law and considered the 8th deadly sin by many Christians. Gossip typically involves saying or repeating something bad about a person who is not present. It generally occurs among a community of people who interact cooperatively together, although these days the mass media exploits our love of gossip - even about strangers - shamelessly.
Despite strong cultural and religious prohibitions, most people nonetheless have urges to gossip. And most give in to those urges from time to time. Men typically share gossip with their romantic partner, while women tend to share it with one another. I have always found this "need" to gossip curious, especially when I detect the urge inside myself.
Why do we want to gossip?
When we hear a piece of “juicy” gossip, it’s usually about something that offends or shocks us, and we have an emotional reaction. Frequently we feel that something has occurred that is unjust. When we discover that someone is having an affair or that our neighbor is a criminal, it sets our tongues a wagging. It is often the unexpected or unseemly aspects of a person’s character that we most want to gossip about. The writer Leo Lerman kept 50 years of gossip-filled journals because he was "interested in the disparity between the surface and what goes on underneath.”
Motivations may vary, but the desire to gossip can feel like a physical need or craving, as though you are bursting with a desire to tell. This is because the emotions stirred by unsettling information are pressing to be shared, and most people want others to be revealed for who they really are.
Emotions trigger “action tendencies” (like fight or flight) including an urge to communicate. When you discover that someone is dishonest or exploitive, it often inspires a sense of outrage -- and a wish to do something. Research suggests that gossip may sometimes be fueled by the human need for emotional expression about injustice, and a wish to ensure the common good.
While the urge to gossip may be biological, and may even have some compelling social benefits (to be discussed more next week), gossip can also serve our less altruistic and more primitive impulses. It can be a strategy for gaining power -- using information about others as currency to be traded - or for enhancing our social status as an insider "in the know."
Gossip often gets used to elevate the gossiper at the expense of others. Yes, it can be entertaining, but even the motivation for listening and enjoying gossip is worth questioning.
When you have an urge to start or spread gossip, try:
- Waiting for a while -- the sense of urgency may die down
- Managing the “bursting to tell” impulse/energy without gossiping (write about how you feel, think about the consequences of spreading the word)
- Talking to someone who doesn't know the people involved in your gossip
- Putting yourself in the shoes of the person who you want to bad-mouth (empathy may help reduce your outrage)
- Thinking about what you will gain by gossiping